Gratitude is a big deal. We need only look at the recent crowds in Thanksgiving airports and on the nation’s expressways. Millions of people were traveling to be with family on this secular feast day we call Thanksgiving in order to share turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. Our country has this, the most popular of holidays, in order to give thanks for the abundance we have been given, grateful for the family relationships we cherish.
This e-letter takes a quick look at various dimensions of gratitude. In part, it flows from a Holy Cross heart grateful for your support of, and participation in, the Holy Cross mission. In part, it flows from this season in which we are encouraged to give gifts and share in joyful gatherings. In part it flows from our religious lives and the relationship we have with the Lord, aware that all that we have and all that we are is a Divine gift.
Let me start by saying that gratitude is just the beginning. In his book, Vesper Time, Frank Cunningham identified gratitude as one of five dimensions in the spiritual practice of growing older. He recalls the director of one of his retreats who said, “Gratitude is the first movement of the spiritual life.” Also included in that chapter is a quote from Cicero who said something similar, only in a different way. “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but also the mother of all others.”
The virtuous life starts with gratitude and other virtues take their life from it. Gratitude gives birth to the fullness of an upright life of integrity. The pilgrimage of life stalls when the “gratitude tank” is empty. It’s the foundational virtue that fuels the forward movement of our lives. We are able to see blessings, no matter our circumstances.
Gratitude diminishes “I” strain. Audric Estime, a star Notre Dame football player, had a spectacular game playing against Stanford last month. He gained 238 yards and scored four touchdowns. Marvelous, no?
Even more marvelous was what Audric did on the sidelines, unaware that the television camera was focused on him. He went from one offensive lineman to the next apparently thanking them for making his success possible. There’s no question that Audric Estime is an outstanding athlete. He’s also a grateful man, part of a team who helped him to excel.
Marian Anderson said, “When you realize that whatever you do in life, that it is never something you do absolutely alone, you do not like to be saying, ‘I did this. I did that. I, I, I.’”
Gratitude gives birth to generosity. Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, was a man of tremendous zeal. A zealous apostolic spirit was a part of his personal and spiritual charisma. That zeal was born out of gratitude for the many gifts he had received from the Lord. He understood what might be the most essential truth for Christian service of others: that we have first received blessing upon blessing. Consequently, filled with gratitude, we humbly offer to others that which has been received, especially and preferentially to those who are the poor and the marginalized.
In one of his letters, Fr. Moreau wrote to the men in the Congregation, “It is God’s own hand that has guided everything, and God it is whom we must thank above all.”
Gratitude buffers the negatives of life. Years ago, someone sent me a list of reasons to be thankful. Let me share a few of them with you, mostly because they illustrate how gratitude helps a person to see blessings in those circumstances of life that can be irritating. It’s a list that gratitude turns into reversals, if you will, that aren’t ordinarily perceived as something for which to be grateful.
“I AM THANKFUL
- For the lady behind me in church who sings off key, because it means that I can hear;
- For the taxes that I pay, because it means that I am employed;
- For my heating bill, because it means that I am warm;
- For the parking spot at the far end of the parking lot, because it means I’m capable of walking;
- For snow that needs to be shoveled and grass that needs to be mowed. It means I have a home.”
The matters of off-key singing, a lousy parking place, snow on sidewalks, bills, etc., aren’t major or life-threatening realities. They’re easily buffered and even invite gratitude. At the same time life can throw us negative experiences that are real stinkers – the loss of a job, loneliness, the diagnosis of cancer, the death of a loved one, the souring of a relationship – to name a few. Gratitude doesn’t diminish how tough such experiences can be. But it does help us to see beyond them to hidden blessings within them.
Gratitude removes blinders. It opens up our eyes to see the blessings received from God even at the end of life. Let me share with you what Fr. John Gerber, C.S.C., wrote. John died from cancer in 1995. Not an old man, he was a wisdom figure whose heart was filled with gratitude.
“…the oncologist had to inform me that the chemo was not effective…
“I am very conscious that I am dying and that my essential inner task now is to live this death and birth with grateful attention to what God is giving me in this privileged time.
“I am being summoned toward the Presence I have yearned for since boyhood … I have nothing but gratitude for my life … I am at peace that God is offering me a new way.”
John lived what The Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross speak about boldly.
There is no failure the Lord’s love cannot reverse.
All is swallowed up in victory.
He has nothing but gifts to offer.
It remains only for us to find how even the cross can be born as a gift. Constitution 8: 118
Gratitude is no small thing. It is a grand and foundational virtue, the mother of all virtues, that is nurtured in the belief that all we have and all that we are is a gift, a Divine present to every person. We pray at every Mass, “It is truly right and just…always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord… .” The key words: always and everywhere.
In this season of gift giving, it’s my hope that these humble reflections might assist an awakening of a grateful heart in each of us. Thankful for our many blessings, may you know the peace of this season when we gratefully celebrate that God-is-with-us.
Fr. Tom Zurcher, CSC
Author: Rev. Thomas K. Zurcher, C.S.C.
Published: January 11, 2024